So, I just finished reading two interesting articles on One Laptop Per Child, an organization that aims to give computers to underprivileged kids in third world countries, in the hope of giving them a better education. The articles I read are at http://mashable.com/2012/10/29/tablets-ethiopian-children/ and http://dvice.com/archives/2012/10/ethiopian-kids.php, and deal with an experiment that OLPC did.
One Laptop Per Child essentially airlifted boxes full of Motorola Xoom tablets into two remote Ethiopian villages, which were described as being completely illiterate, without any written language at all. The tablets had no instructions with them, and the program workers "thought the kids would play with the boxes". Imagine their surprise when, instead, "Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android".
First thought: Oh my gosh, look what they were able to do with no teachers or formalized instruction! Faith in humanity == restored!
Second thought: Hold up. We had the money to drop X amount of tablet computers into a village, but didn't use it to provide the kids with actual teachers or books or a school?
Well, maybe the second thought can be rationalized by the fact that this is an educational experiment. But, in that case, there are a whole new list of questions to be raised. In the course of my undergraduate research, I had to take an online course about proper human research techniques. The Institutional Review Board is a government organization set up in the aftermath of Nazi atrocities that came to light during the Nuremburg Trials. The IRB extends special protection to infants, children, prisoners, the mentally disabled, and pregnant women, as these groups could be easily exploited by a researcher looking for a sample of convenience from an audience without another option. I feel like illiterate children in Ethiopia also fall under the umbrella of IRB protection, and, from what I'm reading, this act of charity has turned into a research study that really should be being screened and supervised, because the risk of creating dependencies and taking advantage of the children is so great. These tablets are serving as an educational aid, a status symbol, and a means of entertainment to the children, and the threat of taking away the tablet could coerce a child into all sorts of things.
Do I think that it's a wonderful idea to give kids tablets and see where they can go with them? Yes.
Do I think that this is the best thing to implement in a village where the educational and sanitary infrastructures are so weak? No.
But what's done is done, the money's been allocated, and the kids seem to be getting a lot out of their fancy, high-tech toys. I just hope that somebody's keeping an eye out, and making sure that nothing down the line from this is going to wind up causing harmn to the group that this program is meant to aid.